Friday, September 25, 2009

San Francisco Opera, Il Trovatore

Sept. 22, 2009

This is not something a critic says lightly, but I think I have just seen the best soprano I have ever seen (and heard). Her name is Sondra Radvanovsky (an American, lest that last name mislead you), and she's currently taking over the city of San Francisco as Leonora in "Il Trovatore."

Let's get extremely specific about this. Let's talk about a device that Radvanovsky uses, first in her opening Andante, "Tacea la notte placida," and most remarkably in Leonora's centerpiece Adagio, "D'amor sull'ali rosee," sung outside the palace as her lover Manrico awaits execution within. The device is a sudden diminuendo - although it doesn't feel sudden, due to the incredibly smooth quality of Radvanovsky's singing. She then takes the note to the barest of pianissimos - a single silk thread of tone, just that close to actual silence - and grows it back. But she's not done. Seeming to possess the lung capacity of pearl diver, the soprano carries the line far past the spot where an average singer might take a catch-breath, spelling out the phrase as a literally breathless audience listens. Although I have always had a problem "buying into" the implausibilities of "Trovatore," Radvanovsky had me weeping for Leonora regardless, if only for the emotional thrill ride that accompanies such gorgeous singing. It's also remarkable that she achieves these iridescent pianissimos from a position of strength - her fortes and top notes are powerful and ringing. Her instrument is a pit bull that also performs pirouettes.

New musical director Nicola Luisotti has made a special project of this "Trovatore," and it certainly shows. The cast is powerful in matters both vocal and dramatic, especially mezzo Stephanie Blythe in the "co-star" role of Azucena. Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky brings his trademark dash and power to the villain role of Count di Luna, particularly in the graceful Largo, "Il balen del suo sorriso." Tenor Marco Berti lends his warrior spinto to Manrico - although his cabaletta "Di quella pira," cut by a verse, lacks the anticipated energy. Turkish bass Burak Bilgili, meanwhile, starts things right with a muscular, compelling delivery of the story of Azucena's slain mother (I always feel like this story should come with a warning - "Pay careful attention or you will be lost for the rest of the opera").

The chorus presence - notably the legions of soldiers on both sides - is impressively active, thanks to stage director David McVicar and fight director Jonathan Rider. The vision of Manrico's men climbing the fences, guns at the ready, was an especially striking image.

Charles Edwards' sets - inspired by the works of Goya and used previously in productions at the Met and Chicago Lyric - are set upon a three-sided rotating monolith, and it's much fun to watch the next scene cruising in even as the last one is spinning away (especially Manrico and di Luna, dueling all the way offstage at the finish of Act I). The lighting by Jennifer Tipton added greatly to these artful tableaux, notably the hellish orange-yellows of the Anvil scene. Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes are intriguing, notably the top hats worn by the Count's forces and di Luna's Act I outfit, a dazzling black uniform with white button squares - going nicely with Hvorostovsky's blazing white hair.

Luisotti is well at home with Verdi, and it came through with his orchestra, which gave a lively, robust performance. Watch closely during the Anvil Chorus, by the way, and you'll note that only one "anvilist" is actually producing the famed metallic peals - a shrewd maneuver.

Through Oct. 6 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Boulevard, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330.

Image: Sondra Radvanovsky. Photo by Terrance McCarthy.

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